Monday, October 15, 2012

Unsafe at any status

I just got an automated email from one of those outsourced job application services telling me the job I applied for has been filled. I get those all the time, but this one is different. It's a job that was thought up for me and I actually had an interview. Spent $80 on gas to drive to Atlanta and back and spent two nights. Fortunately my college roommate put me up for free in her palatial estate.

It all started back in August. I got email through LinkedIn from a friend I worked with a lot in the internet boom. We were both owners of our own companies at the time and took turns hiring each other on various electronics projects. I did hardware and he did firmware. Of course after the tech crash in 2003 we both had to change course. He ended up as a regular employee at a military contractor, wife, kids, big mortgage, the whole bit.

He's been working on the design of the display for the new joint strike fighter. It's like two iPads side by side, only not as technologically advanced, but with much more stringent physical requirements. It's time for all the qualification testing and massive amounts of documentation and everybody is freaking out. This is when my college friends usually contact me. Nobody likes documentation, but everybody knows I put words on a page like trees put leaves on the ground. Word is my bitch. Style sheet, mutherfucker. Get behind me, Track Changes!

And for this particular job my friend thought it would work out to have the person managing the documentation also manage the actual testing. This is something I have also done. Environmental chambers, shake tables, take a prototype to the extremes the specs say it should handle and measure all the pertinent parameters with $100,000 analyzers and $100 cables. (Hint: The problem is usually the cable.) My friend envisioned that I would go to the testing labs in Huntsville and Philadelphia and call the design engineer every night to troubleshoot the day's work; probe the circuits with the digital volt meter and oscilloscope and tell him what I measured. And all the while write this all up for the official reports. He wanted me to be based out of Atlanta with 75% travel.

After outlining this job and presenting it to the vice presidents and getting approval it was out of his hands. The proper organizational hierarchy put me in a different group. I would need to report to one person administratively but work for this other group. It was tricky to get them to schedule an interview. It went from "Be here Monday," to crickets. A month went by. I was desperately trying to get the Spartan door finished so it would be waterproof if I had to leave suddenly. I stopped writing my blog because the only thing on my mind I couldn't really discuss.

Finally in September I got email from my friend telling me to come on up to Atlanta. He would get me in front of the 5 people I needed to meet on Wednesday. Of course this is when I was packing a UHaul truck of furniture to take to my brother in Jupiter. I thought it would be good for me to spend the weekend around people and fly back Monday and practice all this being in public. Good preparation. I was going to nail this interview. I got in my car Tuesday morning and drove to Atlanta, found the office I needed to go to the next day, and checked my email on my phone obsessively. I still didn't know when I was supposed to be there on Wednesday. Finally at 8 pm on Tuesday I got an email from my friend telling me to be there at 10 am.

I showed up in my outfit approved by two HR professionals. I even let their 8 year old paint my toenails. (She did a great job.) I turned in my iPhone and iPad at reception -- no cameras allowed inside -- and went in with my friend.

I met five different people, one at a time in their desperately sad tiny white offices with outsized particleboard furniture, depressing old Dell computers and cruel lighting. Each one told me something completely different that they wanted me to do. The first thought it was important that I schedule the testing. Send all the proper equipment to the labs, plan the travel for the people that needed to be there, be sure the purchase orders went through.

The next wanted me to go into the database and verify that every spec had a corresponding document and that they were all in the same format with the same style sheets applied.

The one after that stressed that I needed to be a spy for management. Reporting if the customer was trying to stop at performance spec level and not go all the way to qualification specs. I was to talk to the design engineers every day and trouble shoot any problems and repair anything that went wrong with the electronics.

It went on like that. What they had in common was they all seemed really stressed out and had no sense of humor. I was smiling my interview smiles and making jokes, as I do, and I was getting these stoney looks. None of them asked me any normal interview questions. They just told me what they needed and I said, yes, I can do that. Here's when I did something like that before. If their behavior was stiff I wrote it off as just being engineers. I didn't think anything of it. I sort of expected the same dispensation.

The last person I met was a contractor working in Human Resources. She had prepared a job description to put on the internet. She used their standard Technical Writer job description. English or Journalism major, experience with Federal document databases, know Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, Framemaker, Adobe CS. 75% travel. It didn't say anything about doing all that electronics troubleshooting or project management.

The pressing question I had this whole time was "What's it pay?" It sounded like a very expensive job. I would have to pay for all this travel up front and be reimbursed, provide my own computer and about $10,000 of software, and there would be no health insurance or other benefits. But it would be over in 9 months. I finally got to ask that crucial question of the HR person in the last meeting of the day. It would have the same pay scale as their other office based English Majors, about $30/hr. It made me sorry they shut down in 2002.

I left the HR office and my friend showed me back to the lobby. I got my iPhone and iPad and we went outside. He told me that he'd had a chance to talk to the people I met. They all were easily convinced I had all the technical skills to do the job, but they thought I wasn't tactful enough to keep the customer happy. I was floored. "Well, I guess they met the real me!" I said.

My friend laughed, which is more than I can say for any of his humorless colleagues. I mean, yeah, I'm tactless compared to my extrovert public-relations-major step-sister, but I'm not tactless compared to my engineer brother. And nobody mentioned the customer was anything but Lockheed test engineers. Engineers are my peeps! They don't need passive-aggressive mollycoddling! What the hell is this bullshit!? We're all after the same goal. Get the best display system possible, approved and in production.

But nothing more to do about it then. I got in my car 290 miles from home and went back to a week of jury duty. The HR person said she would call me the next day with an offer, if there were one. Then she would let me know when she posted the job online, I would apply, and she would immediately take it down. Of course I never heard from anybody at all. I kept checking online to see if they posted the job that looked like the description the HR person showed me. I found it a week after my interview. I realized if I applied for it then it would automatically send me a "fuck off" email when they filled the position. So I half-heartedly filled it in and submitted it. Just over a month later my plan came through. I like a little closure on these things.

I'm still baffled by what I did that was so tactless. I chalked it up to them just not getting my jokes. I couldn't get a smile out of anybody. Then today I read something interesting on Guardian Science about how status affects people returning smiles.
Carr found that responding to smiles was more complicated than expected. "If you feel powerful, you suppress smiling to targets that are of a higher status," he said.
Oh, really?! So maybe they felt somehow THREATENED by me and that's why they wouldn't smile back at me? This is fascinating. I mean, why wouldn't it be? It makes me AWESOME. I think if you are going to get rejected for a job that was designed for your exact experience then you are allowed to fabricate some kind of flattering rationalization for why you didn't get it.

I understand I'm unemployable by the usual means, but I really did think that my high-level friends could still hire me if they wanted to. I have skills. But it turns out the only important skill for holding down a job at my age, as long as I'm a woman, is social skills.

I'm not broke yet though, and my Spartan isn't finished. Some work will come along as soon as I'm ready! It always does. Also, that was a fucking awful sounding job. I feel bad for whoever got it. If they call me in January and want me to come fix everything after that contractor quits suddenly I'm going to make them pay a good sight more than $30 an hour.


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